Bowling Green — Justin Turner had been in the gym, working countless hours on his moves and ball-handling so when the ball was in his hands with the game on the line Saturday evening he felt right at home.
And, with a sold-out crowd of 5,000 fans at the Stroh Center on their feet, Turner started his drive to the basket, then took a step back jumper and was fouled with 1.2 seconds on the clock.
Turner stepped to the line and made both free throws for the difference in an 85-83 win over rival Toledo to ensure Bowling Green (18-6, 9-2) stayed atop the Mid-American Conference East Division standings while winning multiple games during a season in the rivalry for the first time since 1999.
Turner is among the top players in the MAC and his plays down the stretch in multiple wins this season will go a long way towards him possibly walking away as MAC Player of the Year.
But, Turner would rather have a MAC tournament championship ring than the Player of the Year award, especially after Bowling Green advanced to the conference championship game in Cleveland last year only to lose to Buffalo, 87-73.
Turner, a 6-foot-4 junior who played at Detroit Renaissance, scored 21 and had five rebounds and five assists Saturday. He scored off a driving layup during a 6-0 run to open up a 73-66 lead with 4:55 remaining.
But, it was his play when Bowling Green had the ball with 14.9 seconds remaining after Marreon Jackson’s driving layup pulled Toledo even that was most on Turner’s mind.
“It kind of feels surreal when moments come like these and I’m ready for it," said Turner following the game, "because I worked so hard for it and when those times come I know that I have to capitalize on certain situations and my high school coach (Vito Jordan) told me when you’re a dog you’re supposed to get your teams out of certain situations so that’s what I’ve hanged my hat on.”
Turner earned a spot on the All-MAC Freshman Team, then became Bowling Green’s first sophomore since Cornelius Cash in 1972-73 to earn first-team All-MAC honors last season when he averaged 18.2 points and 3.7 rebounds, shooting 46.8 percent from the field while making 37.2 percent of his 3-pointers.
This season, Turner is averaging 19 points and 4.9 rebounds, shooting 44.6 percent from the field and 35.4 from deep. He is shooting 86.7 percent from the line, a reason he was confident when stepping to the line in the final seconds.
So, where has Turner improved the most from a year ago?
“Probably being a leader, being more of a vocal leader, getting my teammates in the right position,” Turner said. “Today, we were down a guard, so I had to step up, not only scoring but rebounding and assists and getting people more involved, getting people touches, so just my overall game.
“We’re more than capable of winning the MAC championship. We’ve got all the pieces. I think we have enough depth. We have the coaching. We have the players. We play hard, so I think we have what it takes to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
Bowling Green showed its depth in the win over Toledo. With senior guard Dylan Frye, who scored 22 in the 85-79 win at Toledo Jan. 25, sidelined in the rematch, the Falcons had nine players score five or more points and their bench outscored Toledo’s by a 31-6 margin.
Bowling Green has taken advantage of the home court in recent years, going 25-3 at the Stroh Center the last two seasons, 11-1 this season.
“When I came here my first year we barely could sell out a game and now with all the work we’ve put in and the progress we’ve made, we’re getting some real good crowds and it shows that the hard work is paying off,” Turner said.
Bowling Green had its first eight-game winning streak in MAC play in 40 years before a 92-82 loss at Central Michigan last Tuesday, making the win over Toledo a big one.
“It was super important, we knew we needed to bounce back and get back in the winning column,” Turner said.
Turner keeps in touch with Jordan, his former head coach at Renaissance.
“He texts to me after every game, he’s always telling me to keep that chip on my shoulder because I haven’t received my respect yet, to keep going at it,” Turner said. “I’m just so focused on that championship, especially after getting to that championship game and me finishing second for Player of the Year. It was then that I realized what my real goal was and that’s winning the MAC championship.”
Central (13-9, 6-3) came back from an 18-point second-half deficit to take a 52-51 lead only to lose at two-time defending MAC champion Buffalo last Friday, 65-60.
Central's loss had the Chippewas fall out of the MAC West lead behind Northern Illinois (15-9, 8-3).
Central senior David DiLeo made three 3-pointers during a 33-14 run, including one with 6:42 remaining to give CMU a 52-51 lead. He finished with 16 points.
Central hosts Eastern Michigan (12-11, 2-8) Tuesday before returning home for a Friday night battle with Akron (17-6, 7-3 East).
Eastern is playing some of its best ball of the season, winning two straight and then holding a 55-49 lead over the Zips in Akron Saturday with 1:03 left before Akron went on a 10-4 run to earn the 59-58 win.
Eastern 7-foot senior Boubacar Toure had his fourth double-double in the last five games with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Brandon Johnson continued his strong player for Western Michigan Saturday in helping the Broncos to their second straight win, defeating Ball State 68-64.
Johnson, a 6-8 junior forward, missed the entire 2018-19 season due to a knee injury.
Johnson had 29 points and seven rebounds, making 12 of 14 shots from the field. He had 21 points and seven rebounds in a win over Miami of Ohio last week.
The Broncos (11-12, 4-6) will play at Ohio (11-12, 3-7 East) Tuesday before traveling to Ypsilanti to play Eastern on Saturday afternoon.